Biography and Ideology

Matt takes gentle exception to David Brooks taking gentle exception with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

We look at successful people and see that they share certain common elements. From that, it’s easy to infer that the successful succeeded because of these characteristics in a way that’s unduly strong. We forget to look at all the other people who also share those characteristics.

To get rich in the United States you pretty much have to work hard. But the idea that success is due to hard work ignores the fact that there are all these other people working hard and not succeeding. Hard work is much more common than success. And advantages of birth and dumb luck are making the difference — separating the hard-working partner at the corporate law firm from the hard-working guy who moved the furniture into the law firm’s office. Similarly, if you only look at the successful traders on Wall Street you’ll probably decide they got rich because they’re smart — these firms usually try to hire smart guys who went to good schools. But if you look at the failures, you’ll see that they’re smart guys who went to good schools, too. The difference between the two groups is luck.

I disagree with very little if anything in either David’s column or Matt’s post. My gut instincts certainly side with David, i.e., I think it’s important not to efface the importance of “the self-initiating individual.” It occurred that this might reflect the fact that Matt and I both grew up in the five boroughs, yet he went to Dalton, a small independent school widely regarded as one of the best in the country, and I went to Stuyvesant, a large public magnet school that selects students by an SAT-like exam and that has a demographics that differ strikingly from those of the public school system as a whole, i.e., the school has a large Asian majority and an embarrassing paucity of black and Latino students.

This is certainly not to say that I had a somehow scrappier experience, or that “merit” in some abstract sense is what accounts for the stratification in New York’s public high schools. Though not exactly diverse in class composition, New York’s best independent schools make a strong effort to recruit kids from nontraditional backgrounds through generous tuition assistance and aggressive outreach. That said, I think it’s fair to say that my friends who attended these schools tend to be extremely skeptical of Horatio Alger mythology, not least because they were exposed to a lot of legacies and development cases who’d make anyone question the justice of social arrangements under late capitalism.

By the time I arrived at Stuyvesant, in 1993, the test prep culture had started taking off. Middle-class parents who couldn’t afford to send their kids to independent schools were desperate to get their kids into the specialized high schools because, in their demographic composition — the number of kids from intact families, for example — this small handful of schools resembled the middle-class public high schools of past decades. Stuyvesant and Bronx Science have produced more than their share of Nobel laureates, but so have less glamorous high schools throughout the outer boroughs. The trouble is that the supply shriveled up as New York city hemorrhaged middle class families from the 1970s on.

Clearly the Stuyvesant of my memory reflected a different kind of privilege — this was not an egalitarian paradise. Of the kids who wound up in Ivy League schools, a disproportionate number were upper-middle-class, some of them legacies, who had attended independent schools earlier in their education. Either the parents were rich in cultural capital and cash poor, or they found public education, including quasi-elitist public education, ideologically appealing.

At the same time, I was struck then and now by the uneven distribution of the work ethic. In my day, grades at Stuyvesant were logarithmic. Grade inflation meant that students with a pulse had a GPA in the neighborhood of a preposterously high 90 percent. (For much of my time at Stuyvesant, my GPA fell below that mark.) But once you climbed above a 95 or a 96, the competition became incredibly fierce. My rough impression is that the weak performers like yours truly — before peer pressure got to me, I almost flunked out of a few classes; for me at least, peer pressure at Stuyvesant meant pressure to study hard and hustle your way into a selective college — were not working very hard. As for the truly industrious, the diversity was extraordinary: some came from healthy and happy homes, while many others experienced the worst kind of home lives. I mean, “luck” is tremendously broad — these kids were all lucky to have access to bright, non-bullying peers. A closeted, scrawny girl who was getting roughed up by her dad because he was a drunk might have been lucky to have rice-paddy-cultivating relatives two generations back. At the same time, adverse circumstances can obviously encourage what Brooks calls “control of attention.” Would you rather focus on multivariate calculus or the unending torment that is your family life?

There’s something else that comes to mind, namely that our mental map of society only rarely captures the gritty terrain. I’m not sure I can articulate this very well, but I’ll try. My mother is a health worker and my father is an accountant who works pretty much exclusively with tiny immigrant-owned businesses and recent arrivals. A lot of the work he does is unpaid, e.g., helping people figure out how to navigate the social services bureaucracy, etc. Through both of them, I’ve learned a lot about the way the plans of the administrative state mesh with the “illegible” ethnic economy of the city. The most virtuous, hard-working people, it often seems, are the ones who most aggressively game the system, which they see in amoral, impersonal terms (which makes sense, as I’m calling it “the system”). Just as much of the prosperity of the Washington metropolitan area is parasitic and illusory — aha! we’ve turned an undesirable civil service job into a lucrative contractor position! — it’s hard not to think that the skids of upward mobility are occasionally greased by fraud. This is one reason my father has always believed that the IRS needs a much larger budget, both to aggressively audit rich tax cheats (he hates them) and also to curb low-level abuse that undermines trust in “the system.” Ronald Reagan blasted welfare queens. And yet Medicaid mills have helped build the fortunes of plenty of otherwise upstanding citizens. Of course I think this is a bad thing. But it’s complicated. The American administrative state isn’t Suharto’s Indonesia — but in some places and times, it can get badly frayed.

In a related vein, the “poor” are often related to the “rich.” Like most of you, I know a lot of middle-class families that include a wayward sibling. Drugs are often involved, and, eventually, Medicaid is involved as well. The appeal of the luck thesis lies in part in this direct experience most of us have with, well, insanely bad luck. At the same time, the role of agency in drug addiction, for example, is not so straightforward. Or as Christopher Jencks argued in The Homeless, it’s often more constructive to think of constrained choices rather than the absence of choices when we’re talking about the severely disadvantaged. The administrative state offers aid with many fewer strings than relatives or friends, particularly when you’ve burned a lot of bridges.

We tend to think of the impact of severe mental illness and drug addiction as this totally marginal phenomenon, when it’s in fact — in my experience, at least — far, far more pervasive. The obsession with “health” — the gardening state, etc. — is in the DNA of the modern administrative state: how many people can you tax, how many can you conscript, etc. According to Bruce Berkowitz in Strategic Advantage, less than 30 percent of the 2 million Americans who become eligible for the draft each year are considered fit for military service. The military recruits a bit more than a sixth of that number. People become ineligible for a whole host of reasons, some of them preposterous , e.g., sexual preference, but the requirements are otherwise a decent proxy for the qualities you need to get by as a young man in a competitive, not always super-friendly economy. A lot of this is luck, definitely! Yet the epidemiological framework cuts in contradictory directions: peer effects powerfully influence one’s proclivity towards obesity. Yet self-control also plays a role in setting off the spiral, right?

Basically, Stuyvesant made me more of a Richard Posner-style Nietzschean than perhaps I should be.

P.S. A minor point — the scale of success is relevant. Effort doesn’t separate the winners of tournaments from the losers of tournaments, the focus of Gladwell’s inquiry.